Published on July 20th, 2022 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC
Writer Robert Barry Francos is the perfect person to talk about the new doc, Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC. He was there!
From 1975 through its closing in 1981, I was frequently a denizen of Max’s Kansas City, a club that had been open much longer than I had been attending, right on Park Avenue. The reason for my being there was not for the imbibition of alcohol, drugs, or bathroom sex (all of which was concurrent with the scene), but to hear the music.
Over the years, I attended a multitude of shows. Heck, we interviewed the freakin’ Ramones in the upstairs dressing room the night before they left for their first tour of the U.K. in July 1976.
Relatively early, after 10 PM, I would drive to the venue. I honestly don’t remember ever eating in the downstairs restaurant, nor managing to be cool enough to get into the infamous back room. Then came the walk up the long and broad staircase, manned at the top by the person taking the admission fee. Often, this was the patron saint of the club and booker, Peter Crowley.
When walking into the main room, you were facing the middle of the bar, the walls surrounded by artfully placed photos of some of the larger names to come to the site, taken by the leading photographers of the scene.
To the right was a huge bay window overlooking Park Avenue (funny, I don’t remember ever seeing it in the daylight) and immediately to the right were the bathrooms, which had some quite raucous and humorous graffiti, such as intimations to DeeDee Ramone’s appendage offering.
Entering the staging area, the DJ booth was to the left, and if you were lucky, it was a night when Wayne/Jayne County was spinning. In front was a row of dining booth, and then there were the long, vertical communal tables where you sat near whomever you sat nearby. The view of the stage was clear wherever you were. These tables were up against the stage, so there was usually no dancing (much to the chagrin and annoyance of Eddie and the Hot Rods, the night I saw them).
At the time I was attending Max’s, there were two venues that “invented punk rock,” including CBGB, both in rivalries, but they often had the top bands playing at both (e.g., the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads). They honestly (in my opinion) both deserve the title of birth of punk, though the other site gets more credit, and I believe that is because of a well-timed, on-air tee shirt worn by a member of Gun N’ Roses. However, Max’s was there first, open for proto bands like the New York Dolls, the Stooges, and the Velvet Underground, who were creating a scene half a decade before the other place.
That is where Danny Garcia comes in. The man has a history of documentaries about nascent punk, such as Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders (2014), Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy (2016), and STIV: No Compromise, No Regrets (2019), the latter about the lead singer of the Dead Boys.
By this point, Garcia knows all the key players and assembles them to do this film version of an oral history that absorbs the viewer right from the start. After respectfully setting up the idea that this was about Max’s and not CBGB, the history of Max’s early days is given, during its Andy Warhol phase and after, when the artistic elite – such as musicians, painters, and writers – all packed that small room, much to the delight of each other. Many a major record deal was signed in that hallowed spot. Musician Elliot Murphy makes a wise analogy connecting Max’s back room with the infamous Algonquin Round Table. This is off to an excellent start.
There are plenty of early clips of artists on the Max’s stage, focusing on the big ones like Alice Cooper, the Stooges, the VU, the New York Dolls, and even Sid Vicious (though that was later). Due to the age and technology, many of these clips are shown as B-roll over contemporary interviews with the likes of Cooper, or music bytes.
While this documentary is all truly fascinating; for me, however, the story ramps up for the second phase of Max’s, when the original owner Micky Ruskin gave way to different ownership by Tommy Dean, and then Crowley came on the scene to turn a restaurant that played music occasionally to a venue known mostly for the bands that would play there. At this point, there is a bit of a screed again CBGB (“…where the style of dress is different, and the attitude is different, and the presentation is different.”); CBs definitely finds its way into this story, but the primary focus is on Max’s.
Along with the obvious historical timelines, etc., part of what makes this documentary so compelling to me is the numerous side stories, such as DeeDee’s girlfriend trying to dismember the member mentioned above, or the fight between Jayne County and a very belligerent and drunk Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators, and the schism it caused in the scene at the time. The almost Comix style animation used to highlight this little groundbreaking bout that would synergize the two clubs is spot on.
The interviews are a large part of the story, but it does not feel overwhelming. There are a lot of talking over the live performances and still photos, and even, as mentioned above, the occasional animation. This keeps the focus on the oral history, without becoming tedious.
As with most documentaries that are heavy with interviews, there is a level of participation needed from the audience as to who the main characters are, even with the briefest of information given about them (name, name of band, for example). This is no issue with people like Cooper, or Billy Idol, HR (Bad Brains), Neon Leon, or even probably the amazing Lenny Kaye. But I wonder how the novice to the scene would know about some really important personalities, such as the lovely Singer/scenestress Donna Destri or Leee Black Childers (heck, I can’t even begin to list his accomplishments, they are so deep and varied to especially Max’s).
There are dozens of people who are crucial to the music scene, presented in both contemporary and archival footage, including (but not only) Jesse Malin, Jimmy Zero (Dead Boys), Steve Stevens (Billy Idol Band), Harley Flanagan, Mickey Leigh, Penny Arcade, and arguably one of the biggest Max’s supporters over the decades and interesting musician in his own right, Jimi LaLaumia. Archival footage includes some that have passed on too soon, like Leee Black Childers (d. 2014), Sylvain Sylvain (d. 2021), and Alan Vega (d. 2016), among others.
Presented is also some clips from live shows, such as Alice Cooper, the Testors, Ruby and the Rednecks, and a very fuzzy Sid Viscous. I like that they mixed some bands that are unknown to the mainstream, along with some of the bigger names.
Overall, this is a riveting revival for Max’s and this is a bit rambling over the history in a way that keeps the interest rather than getting bogged down in logistics and historical timelines. And if one is into punk of that period, it is worth a watch. Maybe take some notes.